THE Renault Twizy is one of those vehicles you instinctively want to like. The tiny electric two-seater is virtuous (zero emissions), quirky (people sure look at you) and entertaining to tool around in. It wants to be patted, played with and praised. But after buzzing around the boulevards for a couple of days, it became clear to me that to like the Twizy, I first had to figure out what it was.
That's not easy. Sure, it was fun to drive. And easy: push in the hand brake, turn the key, wait for it to go through a brief start-up ritual, push the D (or R) button and nudge the pedal.
The Twizy was designed by Renault Sport Technologies, the hot-rodding division of Renault, so even though the 13-kilowatt (17 horsepower) motor provides the acceleration of a 125 cc scooter, the steering is taut, the center of gravity is low and the contraption is surprisingly composed through turns.
There's no inside rearview mirror (there's no rear window), but given that the vehicle is only marginally wider than the driver, the side mirrors give a good sense of the neighborhood, allowing for some deft weaving through traffic. I found that drivers who would normally try to kill me when I darted in front of them seemed prepared to cut me some slack in the Twizy, possibly because they feared that an unidentified driving object like this might be armed with laser guns.
Around town, the governed top speed of 50 miles per hour was enough, and even on the Boulevard Peripherique, the multilane ring road, I generally held my own.
But the fact is, whatever positive things I imagined saying about the Twizy as I hummed around in it were immediately followed by "But..."
It is emphatically not a car. In France, whence it comes, it is classified as a quadricycle, which means you can't take it on the autoroute superhighway. That eliminates several suburbs from which one might want to commute, as well as quick trips to the airport or to Disneyland Paris.
Not that there'd be any room for any purchases or luggage - storage consists of two glove compartments and a hole behind the "back seat." That seat is actually a scooterlike perch behind the driver, requiring the passenger to straddle the front seat.
The driver, I must add, best have dental fillings firmly glued in, given a suspension that faithfully transmits every contour of the cobblestones below and a seat minimally slathered with padding. Hey, Renault Sport doesn't do soft.
Doors are optional, for 590 euros ($755). I had them, but they were really a bar with a Plexiglas sheet down below and nothing up above.
I confess it was sort of fun to drive with both elbows hanging over the sides, but then the weather was nice. Along with the absence of windows, there's also no heater, no air-conditioning, no radio, no power anything - only a bare-bones pod that shows roughly how fast, or how slow, you're going; how much juice you have left; and whether you're in D, N or R.
The driving range on a full charge is about 60 kilometers (37 miles), after which you need to plug in the Twizy for three and a half hours.
Where to plug it in is, of course, the universal problem as battery-powered cars come of age. Twizys (Twizies?) have a normal European 220-volt plug, which is good if you have a garage. The town hall of each of the 20 arrondissements, or districts, has a pair of outlets for electric cars. I dutifully plugged in my Twizy overnight outside the mairie of the 5th arrondissement, by the Pantheon, but when I got in the next morning the meter hadn't budged. I have no doubt I did something wrong, so I will not hold this against the, um, quadricycle.
Quadri, yes, but cycle, no.
Bicycles, scooters and motorcycles are fixtures on the streets here, and young people moving up from these are the most logical market for the Twizy. But the allure of a scooter is that it can zigzag through urban traffic, can be parked almost anywhere and is cheap. The Twizy fails on all three counts.
Narrow as it is, the Twizy cannot squeeze between cars stuck in a traffic jam, and though it is less than eight feet long and only four feet wide and can turn on a dime, it still requires a real, paid parking spot. And its price, starting at about 7,690 euros ($9,800) without doors (and batteries, which are leased), is more than double that of the basic Vespa scooter, which starts here at 3,690 euros ($4,720).
(There's a cheaper Twizy with a 4-kilowatt, or 5 horsepower, motor that can be driven without a license, but that's really another story.)
Renault has said that it has no plans to offer Twizys in the United States, a market the company abandoned in 1987.
Why would anyone buy a vehicle that combines the disadvantages of a car and a scooter? Evidently, many people are asking the same question, which is why you don't see many Twizys here. That may change as power outlets for electric cars proliferate, but by then there will undoubtedly be many other urban runabouts to choose from.
So what is it? Well, in the end, it's a statement. Renault went out of its way to make the Twizy completely different from anything else on the road. The whole point is to get people to ask questions and to proclaim that the all-electric revolution is upon us - and that Renault is there at the starting line.
In fact, Renault makes two other electric vehicles, the Fluence Z.E. (for zero emissions) sedan and the Kangoo Z.E., a mini delivery van, and a compact car, the Zoe, is on the way. But none of those stand out like the Twizy.
No, I wouldn't buy one, and I wouldn't recommend one. But I did enjoy the smiles, the pointed fingers, the questions and the novelty.
INSIDE TRACK: Go electric go.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service